It's a recipe Southern Californians know well: Take one freeway system, add water and voila --instant gridlock.
When a storm sweeps in, as one did recently, what little order prevails on local freeways is washed down the inadequate drains. Water sloshes up into engines, wetting distributor caps and causing cars to stall. Visibility drops, wet brakes fail and bumpers crumple. (The California Highway Patrol reports a 33% increase in accidents during wet weather.)
And as all too many motorists sit in freeway traffic, June Baca sits at a "nervous desk," repeating a question so obvious it must befuddle the pitiful--sometimes sopping wet--people hearing it:
"Highway Patrol, are you having car trouble?"
Officially known as a "service desk operator," Baca and 10 other civilian employees at CHP Headquarters on Vermont Avenue answer nearly 2,000 calls a day from the 3,607 call boxes spread at quarter-mile intervals over Los Angeles County's 525 miles of freeway, as well as all calls to the emergency 911 number from cellular phones.
Sometimes the euphemistic "car trouble" question is followed by reports of true tragedy. More often, the caller, shouting to be heard over the honk and roar of the freeway, describes the sort of misery that only seems worse than injury or death: the disintegrated alternator that kills all hopes of a long-awaited weekend getaway; the crushed front end that will put a dent in a salesman's life for weeks to come.
"Most automobile owners, unless they're driving a marginal wreck, don't anticipate the possibility of a breakdown," said John Retsek, an automotive journalist who for 13 years has co-hosted radio station KPFK's no-holds-barred "Car Show." "But my wife and I drive mostly new test cars, and it's just amazing how many of those go belly up . . . Breaking down on the Harbor Freeway at midnight has always been one of my greatest fears."
"There are no set solutions to all the problems" that can occur on Southern California's freeways, said CHP Public Affairs Officer Mike Maas. He and other experts did, however, offer some general guidelines to help survive a mishap, rain or shine.
IF YOU'RE INVOLVED IN A MINOR ACCIDENT ON THE FREEWAY
- Remain calm. Look around. See if there are any witnesses. Before you leave the scene of the accident, take a second look at where the vehicles were. Copy down the license plate numbers and get a good look at the person driving, then--if possible--arrange to meet off the freeway.
- Drive your car off the freeway and call the Highway Patrol.
- File a report with the CHP if the damage is more than $500 to the property of any one person. CHP officers will respond to non-injury accidents only if they aren't busy with more serious matters. If you don't want to call the CHP or they don't want to come, go to the nearest CHP office and file a "counter report." The CHP suggests you file within 48 hours. The California Vehicle Code compels you to file within 10 days.
- Abandon a car that can be driven at the point of impact. Ever.
- Get out of the car--even on the shoulder--to examine the damage or argue about whose fault the wreck was. "You're putting yourself and other motorists at much more of a hazard," Maas said. In 1986, the CHP investigated 455 accidents of various sorts involving vehicles stopped on a freeway shoulder, Maas said. "I don't have the exact figures, but yes, there were injuries, and yes, there were deaths."
- Discuss responsibility for the accident with anyone. Discuss the circumstances of the accident only with the investigating CHP officer and your insurance carrier, says Howard Jennings of the Automobile Club of Southern California. He adds that drivers should report accidents to the Department of Motor Vehicles' financial responsibility division as well as their insurance carrier.
IF YOUR CAR BREAKS DOWN ON THE FREEWAY
- Turn on your four-way flashers and work your way over to the right-hand shoulder. Go to the center divider only if it's impossible to reach the right. (If your emergency flashers don't work, signal a right turn with your hand. "Wave your arm a little bit if you have to, cars will generally respond," Maas said.)
- If your car blows a tire on the freeway, keep your foot off the accelerator and the brakes. Turn on your four-way flasher and carefully work your way off the freeway.
- Once you're on the right shoulder and out of traffic, leave your flashers on, get out of the car and put up your hood.
- Using extreme caution, put out emergency flares or reflective triangles when possible. ("Know how to use the flares, it may be helpful to practice with them," Maas said.) Those cardboard car shades with CALL POLICE on one side also inspire helpful motorists to report breakdowns, Maas said.